1. THE BETRAYAL (1948). Pioneering African-American film director/producer/distributor Oscar Micheaux created a staggering output of all-black films designed for release in the segregated theaters of Jim Crow America. Late in his career, Micheaux finally received the opportunity to present a film in a mainstream (read: overwhelmingly white) New York theater. Micheaux offered “The Betrayal,” based on his self-published novel The Wind from Nowhere. “The Betrayal” told the story of a forbidden interracial love between a wealthy black farmer and a white woman in the wilds of South Dakota (Micheaux’s home state). The miscegenation issue was resolved when it is revealed the woman is actually a light-skinned African-American passing for white.
WHY IS IT LOST? “The Betrayal” reportedly ran three hours, and the critics who reviewed the film panned it for being a rickety, badly-made movie. Black audiences were equally unimpressed. Micheaux made no further films and died three years later; “The Betrayal” was forgotten and prints were never retrieved by the Micheaux estate. No copy of the film is known to exist.
2. BEZHIN MEADOW (1937). Following a disastrous sojourn to North America in the early 1930s which resulted in a fruitless stay in Hollywood and the aborted “Que Viva Mexico” in Mexico, Sergei Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union to begin work on what was supposed to be his first talkie. “Bezhin Meadow” was based on a story by Isaac Babel about an 11-year-old boy who escapes his psychotic father and becomes a “Young Pioneer” leader who helps his village defeat an attack on a harvest by anti-Bolshevik saboteurs. Production stretched two years and cost one million rubles (no small fee for Stalinist-era cinema) before the Kremlin shut down the film. Eisenstein was accused of misusing “creative opportunity,” although the rebuke was relatively short-lived as he later commenced production on his 1938 masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky.”
WHY IS IT LOST? Reportedly, the sole surviving “Bezhin Meadow” print (a workprint, according to some sources) was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. More likely, the Soviet authorities intentionally destroyed the film. In 1968, Eisenstein’s widow pieced together a half-hour film using outtakes and stills from “Bezhin Meadow.” Unless a print is unearthed in the depths of Russia’s film archives, this is all that currently remains of the film.
3. A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1921). This adaptation of the Mark Twain classic stars Harry Myers, who is best known as the drunken millionaire who befriends Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights.” Myers was a comedy star of the silent era and this was among his most expensive and successful films. In the film, Myers is reading the Twain text and then falls asleep, going back in time to Camelot. He remakes Merry Olde England to resemble America of the 1920s, complete with hip flasks and motorcycles.
WHY IS IT LOST? Only three of the film’s eight reels are known to survive. Fox Film Corporation remade “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” as a talkie with Will Rogers in 1933. Since the Myers version was not considered to be commercially viable after the end of the silent movie era, and since Myers’ star waned considerably after sound came to film, nobody bothered to ensure the 1921 film survived intact.
4. HER FRIEND THE BANDIT (1914). This Keystone comedy is the only Charlie Chaplin film which is believed to be lost. Chaplin co-starred and co-directed with Mabel Normand, and it is known that he hated sharing behind-the-camera responsibility with the slapstick comedienne. Details on this 16-minute film are hard to come by; its working title was “The Italian,” which may suggest the film indulged in anti-Italian stereotypes that were common in movies of that distant era. The film was also released in Europe as “Mabel’s Flirtation” (Normand was the bigger star at the time) and “A Thief Catcher.”
WHY IS IT LOST? The Keystone studio churned out tons of films on a monthly basis – this was one of 35 films that Chaplin made in 1914 – and it is not surprising that many of the films vanished due to negligent care and inventory supervision. The fact the film is lost is a surprise, given that Chaplin’s silent films were always immensely popular and were still playing theatrically well into the 1950s (when Chaplin’s personal popularity was ruined by the McCarthy-era Red baiting).
5. THE MONKEY’S PAW (1933). The W.W. Jacobs short story was expanded into an hour-long RKO film about a family that learns the lesson of being careful for what it wishes for. When a father is given the possession of a talisman made from the severed hand of a monkey, his wishes for wealth come at the expense of his family’s unity and happiness. Unlike the Jacobs tale, the film version is given a weirdly happy ending in which the chaos and misery is explained away as being a bad dream.
WHY IS IT LOST? Contrary to popular belief, many films of the early sound era are either completely lost or survive in fragments due to the lack of preservation and the unstable nature of the nitrate prints used for creating these movies. “The Monkey’s Paw” is believed to exist only in fragments. A complete print was reportedly housed at the UCLA archives, but if that is true it has yet to make itself known.
Get the rest of the list in part three of FILM THREAT’S TOP 10 LOST FILMS PART 2>>>
Mr. Teller, can you tell me where I can purchase a copy of “The Return of Gilbert and Sullivan”?
On THE RETURN OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN:
This film is NOT lost. It has been made available by an independent company–a cheap DVD-R, I think, but better than nothing. The print runs 29 minutes and seems to be reasonably complete.
The film itself isn’t very good, but it has the benefit of seeming to have been made by people fond of Gilbert and Sullivan. The show-within-a-show parody, TRIAL BY ERROR, is actually moderately clever, although it’s not much less of a distortion than what we see offending G&S earlier in the film (they return from the afterlife to investigate rumors of their reputation being damaged by the expiration of the copyrights on their work). The acting is passable, and the production looks surprisingly solid for something filmed in two days. There are a lot of corny jokes (a slick, stupid record label owner is named N.O. Talent), and it’s mostly for G&S fanatics, but at least it still exists.
Also, Scatman Crothers is in it; he’s listed in the credits, and a jazzman seen singing…I think it’s a parody of “When the Foeman Bears His Steel”, but I can’t quite tell…appears to be Crothers.